United States District Court, D. New Mexico
PAUL T. MEJILLAS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
HONORABLE CARMEN E. GARZA, CHIEF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Paul T.
Mejillas' Motion to Reverse and Remand for Payment of
Benefits, or in the Alternative, for Rehearing, With
Supporting Memorandum (the “Motion”), (Doc.
21), filed February 28, 2019; Defendant Commissioner Nancy A.
Berryhill's Brief in Response to Plaintiff's
Motion to Reverse and Remand the Agency's Administrative
Decision (the “Response”), (Doc. 23), filed
April 24, 2019; and Mr. Mejillas' Reply to Brief in
Response to Motion to Reverse and Remand (the
“Reply”), (Doc. 24), filed May 10, 2019.
Mejillas filed an application for supplemental security
income on June 21, 2016. (Administrative Record
“AR” 161). In his application, Mr. Mejillas
alleged his disability began on October 1, 2015, (AR 161),
and he later amended his disability onset date to June 21,
2016, (AR 16). Mr. Mejillas claimed he was limited in his
ability to work due to post-traumatic stress disorder
(“PTSD”), high anxiety, and depression. (AR 194).
Mr. Mejillas' application was denied initially on
November 10, 2016, and upon reconsideration on March 23,
2017. (AR 16).
Mejillas requested a hearing, and a hearing was held on
February 23, 2018, before Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) Ben Ballengee. (AR 28). Mr. Mejillas and
Molly Malloy-Kelly, an impartial vocational expert
(“VE”), testified at the hearing, and attorney
Michelle Baca represented Mr. Mejillas at the hearing. (AR
28-53). The ALJ issued his decision May 7, 2018, finding Mr.
Mejillas not disabled at any time between his alleged
disability onset date through the date of the decision. (AR
23). Mr. Mejillas requested review by the Appeals Council,
which was denied, making the ALJ's opinion the
Commissioner's final decision for purposes of this
appeal. (AR 5-9).
Mejillas, now represented by attorney Francesca MacDowell,
argues in his Motion that the ALJ made the following
reversible errors: (1) failed to properly assess the opinion
of consulting psychologist Eligio R. Padilla, Ph.D.; (2)
failed to include a function-by-function assessment; (3)
failed to properly consider Mr. Mejillas' subjective
symptoms; and (4) erred by adopting the VE's testimony at
step five. (Doc. 21 at 3-21). The Court has reviewed the
Motion, Response, Reply, and the relevant law. Additionally,
the Court has meticulously reviewed the administrative
record. (Doc. 16). Because the ALJ erred in his consideration
of Dr. Padilla's opinions, the Court finds that Mr.
Mejillas' Motion is well-taken and should be
GRANTED and this case be
REMANDED for further proceedings.
Standard of Review
standard of review in a Social Security appeal is whether the
Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial
evidence and whether the correct legal standards were
applied. Maes v. Astrue, 522 F.3d 1093, 1096 (10th
Cir. 2008) (citing Hamilton v. Sec'y of Health &
Human Servs., 961 F.2d 1495, 1497-98 (10th Cir. 1992)).
If substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's
findings and the correct legal standards were applied, the
Commissioner's decision stands and the plaintiff is not
entitled to relief. Langley v. Barnhart, 373 F.3d
1116, 1118 (10th Cir. 2004); Hamlin v. Barnhart, 365
F.3d 1208, 1214 (10th Cir. 2004); Doyal v. Barnhart,
331 F.3d 758, 760 (10th Cir. 2003). The Commissioner's
“failure to apply the correct legal standards, or to
show . . . that she has done so, are also grounds for
reversal.” Winfrey v. Chater, 92 F.3d 1017,
1019 (10th Cir. 1996) (citing Washington v. Shalala,
37 F.3d 1437, 1439 (10th Cir. 1994)). A court should
meticulously review the entire record but should neither
re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for the
Commissioner's. Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118;
Hamlin, 365 F.3d at 1214. A court's review is
limited to the Commissioner's final decision, 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), which is generally the ALJ's decision,
rather than the Appeals Council's denial of review.
O'Dell v. Shalala, 44 F.3d 855, 858 (10th Cir.
evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion.”
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d
at 1214; Doyal, 331 F.3d at 760. An ALJ's
decision “is not based on substantial evidence if it is
overwhelmed by other evidence in the record or if there is a
mere scintilla of evidence supporting it.”
Langley, 373 F.3d at 1118; Hamlin, 365 F.3d
at 1214. While the Court may not re-weigh the evidence or try
the issues de novo, its examination of the record
must include “anything that may undercut or detract
from the ALJ's findings in order to determine if the
substantiality test has been met.” Grogan v.
Barnhart, 399 F.3d 1257, 1262 (10th Cir. 2005).
“The possibility of drawing two inconsistent
conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the
ALJ]'s findings from being supported by substantial
evidence.” Lax v. Astrue, 489 F.3d 1080, 1084
(10th Cir. 2007) (citing Zoltanski v. F.A.A., 372
F.3d 1195, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004)).
Applicable Law and Sequential Evaluation Process
purposes of supplemental security income and disability
insurance benefits, a claimant establishes a disability when
he is unable “to engage in any substantial gainful
activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or
which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous
period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A), 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). In order to determine
whether a claimant is disabled, the Commissioner follows a
five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”).
Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987); 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920.
first four steps of the SEP, the claimant bears the burden of
showing: (1) he is not engaged in “substantial gainful
activity”; (2) he has a “severe medically
determinable . . . impairment . . . or a combination of
impairments” that has lasted or is expected to last for
at least one year; and either (3) his impairment(s) meet or
equal one of the “listings” of presumptively
disabling impairments; or (4) he is unable to perform his
“past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv); see also Grogan v. Barnhart,
399 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2005). If the ALJ determines
the claimant cannot engage in past relevant work, the ALJ
will proceed to step five of the evaluation process. At step
five, the Commissioner bears the burden of showing that the
claimant is able to perform other work in the national
economy, considering the claimant's residual functional
capacity (“RFC”), age, education, and work
experience. Grogan, 399 F.3d at 1261.
Mejillas claims he was limited in his ability to work due to
PTSD, high anxiety, and depression. (AR 194). At step one,
the ALJ determined that Mr. Mejillas had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since June 21, 2016, the amended
alleged disability onset date. (AR 14). At step two, the ALJ
found that Mr. Mejillas has the following severe impairments:
lumbar degenerative disc disease; depression; anxiety; and
post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”).
three, the ALJ determined that none of Mr. Mejillas'
impairments, solely or in combination, equaled one of the
listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d),
416.925 and 416.926. (AR 15). The ALJ then found that Mr.
Mejillas has the RFC to perform light work, as defined by 20
C.F.R. § 416.957 and SSR 83-10, with the following
limitations: he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds;
he should never be exposed to unprotected heights, moving
mechanical parts, extreme cold, or vibration; he is limited
to performing simple, routine tasks and making simple
work-related decisions; he can occasionally interact